Signs of demand exceeding supply at Maine food trucks and food carts this season are already showing, so if you’re a customer, expect longer waits. Luckily for the overworked truck staff, everyone agrees that the mobile vegan kitchens serve a cold, notably patient and uncomplaining clientele.
Popular vegan food truck Curbside Comforts, which launched last year in Portland selling vegan burgers, mac and cheese and ice cream, has rented a take-out restaurant and scoop shop in Gorham. Its loss on the streets of Portland may be one of the contributing factors to long lines at the remaining vegan food trucks.
Falafel Mafia, a longtime plant-based food truck, is readying a second truck for city streets, but its fate is now in doubt, thanks to Portland’s recently announced plans to reduce the number of truck seats. catering on the Eastern Prom.
Meanwhile, the Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck is facing longer than ever queues, while Cornish-based The Greenhouse by SAO vegan food truck continues to serve towns west of Lake Sebago and adds South Portland to his itinerary.
THIS TRUCK IS TOTALLY AWESOME
When the Totally Awesome Truck made its first lunchtime appearance of the season in early April, serving the Baconators and Street Dawgs, a queue stretched out in front of the truck. It could hardly be called fast food that day – customers waited up to an hour and a half for their orders. Husband and wife owners and crew Tony and Coleen DiPhillipo worked the truck alone and said the line never ends.
Since then, they have been able to hire additional help, but they could use more. “We’re still mobbed, but it’s a little less painful now,” Tony DiPhillipo told me over the phone. And despite the 30-minute wait at their first 420 Brunch of the season, “people stayed so grateful and positive.”
DiPhillipo, who launched the food truck in 2018, has worked in the restaurant business for many years. In other jobs, “there was always a percentage of people who gave (employees) a hard time,” he said. “But that never seems to happen with us.”
Many of his loyal customers say they are happy to wait.
“I want vegan businesses to succeed, which definitely makes queuing easier mentally,” said regular Kelly Caiazzo, a Gorham native who splits her time between Wellesley, Massachusetts and Portland. “I’m glad this means vegan options are popular because they’re better for animals and the environment. And the long queue means vegan businesses are more likely to succeed.
Another regular, Christine Drown of South Portland, echoed that sentiment. “We’d rather pay and wait for good food and good service,” Drown said, before joking, “It’s the one time I’m hungry that I don’t lose having to wait for food. “
DiPhillipo credits both customer demand and patience to the truck’s menu. Even though the place where he parks isn’t very busy, vegan burgers and hot dogs are “such a niche that a lot of people are looking for us,” DiPhillipo said.
Before the pandemic, DiPhillipo had considered making the jump to brick-and-mortar. He would like more space, more staff and the ability to expand his menu. But the last two uncertain years have caused him to pause. Today, despite the continued labor shortage, “I feel much better,” he says. “I feel like it’s going to have to be sooner rather than later.”
For now, the Totally Awesome Truck is planning pop-ups on the Western Prom near Maine Med; Sunday 420 Brunches at the corner of Bolton and Congress streets, where the old gas station outside Tony’s Donuts (owned by DiPhillipo’s uncle) will soon open as a medical cannabis dispensary; and pop-ups at the Rose Mary Jane recreational cannabis store on St. John Street.
The Totally Awesome Vegan Food Truck is also set to sell food at events, including 4th of July at Bug Light Park and Art in the Park in South Portland; Woofstock at Kennebunk; and Yoga Fest, Pet Rock in the Park and the Rally 4 Recovery, all in Portland.
PARKING WOES PLAGUE FALAFAL MAFIA
After 2pm on a weekday in late April, with a strong wind blowing from Casco Bay onto the Eastern Prom, the Falafel Mafia truck was parked on the Eastern Prom near the playground along with three other trucks. There was no one in the playground or sitting on prom, but a group of people braved the cold to order Falafel Mafia.
Falafel Mafia offers a simplified version of the menu served at its sister restaurant Nura in Monument Square, including falafel pita pockets, hummus bowls and shawarma fries. The truck’s menu is mostly vegan, with occasional options of cheeses or sauces made from cow’s milk.
Soon, the company will use two identical trucks. Brothers Dylan and Cameron Gardner, who launched the truck in 2017 and opened the restaurant in 2019, ordered a second truck last year from a Florida company. By the time you read this, Cameron Gardener hopes to have driven him to Portland.
Unfortunately, changes to the city rules that govern food trucks at the Eastern Prom have put a damper on the work. In response to neighborhood complaints about generator exhaust, overflowing garbage cans, damaged trees, and sidewalk congestion, the city is dramatically reducing the number of food truck parking spots in the area.
“We built the new truck with the intention of running seven days a week on the Eastern Prom until we know the city plans,” Dylan Gardner wrote in an email.
“We’re sort of in limbo, waiting to hear more about the selection process before pursuing another location,” Cameron Gardner wrote, adding that if the truck can’t find a place there, it could be forced to lay off staff or reduce employee hours; Nura staff do the prep work for the trucks.
Until changes to the Eastern Prom take effect on June 15, one Falafel Mafia truck will park at the Eastern Prom while the other will do weekday lunch pop-ups on the Western Prom near the Maine Med, as well as the sale of food during concerts at Thompson’s Point, special events and company lunches. The two Falafel Mafia trucks will be working at the Common Ground Country Fair this year.
HELP SEARCHED AT GREENHOUSE BY SAO
At The Greenhouse by SAO food cart, staffing challenges are a major concern. The greenhouse appears at various local businesses during the week and parks at festivals and summer events.
“The challenge is finding reliable staff who can show up at these festivals,” said owner Shelby Oates, whose Southern-style food cart is already booked for Bridgton’s Music on Main series, the Ossipee Fair. Valley, Buxton’s 250th Anniversary Celebration and Bluegrass. Festival at Apple Acres Farm in Hiram.
Oates leads the cart with a team of two to four people. At some of the festivals she worked at last year, “there was such a long wait at times”.
“I am grateful for the grace of the customer who is willing to wait for this food,” she said.
This season, look for The Greenhouse parked at The Local Gear in Cornish, Archie’s Strike & Spare in Kezar Falls, and Pine Root Farm in Steep Falls. Oates said she was collaborating with the farm to produce a series of paid farm dinners. Once she is cleared in South Portland, Oates plans to do occasional pop-ups at Casco Bay Cannabis, a medical dispensary located at 575 Westbrook Street.
As soon as corn is in season, her popular grilled street corn will be back, Oates said, and she’s working on creating a homemade barbecue sauce. Other new menu items include vegan shrimp barbecue sandwiches and polenta cake sliders with greens and herb aioli.
“People will find me a little more often and a little more widely spread this year,” Oates said.
THE LAST HURRAY FROM A TRUCK
Curbside Comforts, which aims to open in Gorham on May 28, made its final appearance as a mobile kitchen on Earth Day in Harrison for a town clean-up event. The wait for food was long, local resident Angie Rosenberg said.
“I haven’t heard any negative comments or seen any negative behavior,” she said, “which is surprising given the high tension these days. I work in a restaurant, and this positive experience food truck is not something we see in a brick and mortar restaurant atmosphere.
Curbside Comforts owner Suzanne Grace appreciates customers’ patience, and she hopes people recognize that food trucks don’t always equal fast food. Many local trucks are doing hand-cooked meals, prepared one at a time, she said, so wait times are increasing as orders pile up.
When she’s not working herself, Grace said she’s willing to wait a long time for a plant-based meal. She waited up to an hour and a half for a table at the Green Elephant Vegetarian Bistro in Portland, which no longer takes reservations (it did for the first time during the pandemic).
“Every time I go,” Grace told me over email, “I expect to wait and make a plan.”
His favorite solution: arcade games at nearby Coast City Comics.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]